Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know, by Malcolm Gladwell, was published in September 2019. The book is a work of nonfiction that explores the many ways in which people misread each other. Gladwell suggests not only that we often misinterpret each others' words, but that we also sometimes misjudge others' motives or misread false claims of innocence.
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Even though Gladwell says this most often happens with strangers, he contends that we also misconstrue what is said or make assumptions based on the demeanor or attitude of people we do know. Gladwell believes that sometimes people are "mismatched," in the sense that a liar behaves as an honest person (as in the case of Hitler) or vice versa.
In the case of Hitler, Gladwell discusses British prime minister Neville Chamberlain's meeting with Hitler in 1938. During this encounter, Hitler convinced Chamberlain that he was not interested in entangling Germany in another war. Chamberlain was completely taken in by Hitler and convinced that he would keep his word, even writing to his sister,
I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.
There were other British politicians—including Winston Churchill—who were not fooled by Hitler, but because all parties were so eager to avoid war, by the time the British realized Hitler's true intentions, it was far too late.
Gladwell also mentions his own experience of being "taken in" by Wall Street entrepreneur Bernie Madoff in 2004. Gladwell interviewed Madoff for a magazine article in The Economist and was impressed by Madoff's calm and gracious manner, especially as compared to many of the other Wall Street businessmen he had interviewed in the past. Of course, in 2008, when Gladwell learned about Madoff's Ponzi scheme and how Madoff had ruined the lives of many investors, he had to acknowledge that he, too, had been duped.
In chapter 1, Gladwell delves into the case of Sandra Bland, an African American woman who was stopped by a white policeman in Texas in 2015. When Bland was pulled over, she asked the officer why she was being stopped. When the officer refused to answer, Bland understandably became upset; then the officer used force, and the situation escalated. Bland was arrested and held in jail, and three days later, she was found hanged in her jail cell. Gladwell believes that situations like these might be prevented in the future if police officers learned to communicate more effectively with the public.
Gladwell also discusses Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced former football coach and convicted child molester, and the case of American student Amanda Knox, who was held in Italy for four years for the murder of her former roommate. Although he exhorts us to be more aware of our biases and ingrained thought patterns when dealing with other people, Gladwell also cautions us that we should not be so suspicious as to stop believing in people altogether.